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Only a philistine would think a computer could write a poem


Art is a testament to Man’s own humanity – Herbert Read. 

THERE have been many forces contributing to the growing philistinism and dehumanisation of our modern culture. The following is just one example. 

In a June 2020 article in the New Yorker, entitled What happens when machines learn to write poetry, Dan Rockmore, director of the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College, takes seriously the idea promoted by a number of scientists from around the world that a computer can write a poem. 

My attitude to that is not merely disagreement, but also repulsion. Years ago, the humane literary critic F R Leavis protested against the influence of science and technology on our conception of human life and human values. He was horrified when the director of a city art gallery (of all places) said to him: ‘A computer can write a poem’ – a reaction he discussed in his 1972 book Nor Shall My Sword. What particularly disturbed him was that such a use of the word ‘poem’ eliminates ‘the essentially human creativity’. He also inveighed against the political policies, especially in education, where the only perception of human need and value consists in ‘progress’ in material standards of living and the conception of the university as little more than an industrial plant. 

I should like to extend the spirit of Leavis’s remarks. The ‘computerial’ use of the word ‘poem’ reduces the idea of a poem (or by implication any other literary genre) to the mere printing of words on a page or screen and so denies the necessity for the creative understanding, the artistic traditions and the critical judgment that are required for its composition and for our appreciation as readers. A computer can no more understand what it is doing in such an assemblage of words than a blood pressure machine can know my blood pressure, or my digital watch can know the time, still less care about such things.   

In his Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that a calculating machine does not calculate. Merely responding to the problems fed into it does not show that a computer understands what it is doing, since calculating is an activity which is related to many other activities in the complex weave of human life, the life of embodied beings.  

A similar objection can be made to the idea of a computer speaking. The neo-Wittgensteinian philosopher Rush Rhees once said that if a creature speaks and can understand you, it must be the kind of creature that can be insulted by what you say, that can laugh at your jokes, and can cry too. It must be capable of lying, pretence and deception. These are the sort of considerations Wittgenstein had in mind in his remark ‘if a lion could speak we should not understand him’ (because it does not share our form of life). 

A poem, or any other literary form, is not just a group of words and nor can it result from mere methods of manufacture (despite the robotic formulation of Mills and Boon novels). At the very least it must be capable of expressing such things as grief, hope, regret, sadness, compassion, disgust, passion, a sense of wonder and a sense of our mortality.  

A determined computerologist might reply to this that all that matters is that the reader can respond to the printed words with such feelings. That would be to ignore the following considerations. A poem is not simply an expression of feeling. Many poems (and other literary forms, and indeed other art forms) typically express or reveal a vision of, or attitude towards, human life that implies a moral perspective.  

Consider the cynical and nihilistic view of life expressed in Ted Hughes’s collection Crow, the moral anger of some of Alexander Pope’s satires inveighing against corruption and hypocrisy, or the mystical rapture and the miracle of nature expressed in the poetry of Wordsworth. Nor are these visions merely propositional statements or ‘information’. They ‘show’ and do not merely ‘tell’. As Wittgenstein put it: ‘An observation in a poem is overstated if the intellectual points are nakedly exposed and not clothed from the heart.’ 

It is not for nothing that we speak of works of literature and works of art, a term that refers not merely neutrally to the labour involved, but to the spirit of love involved in such creative endeavour. A profound love poem does not merely describe love, but creates love on the page, as for instance Shakespeare does in some of his sonnets. By contrast, a writer who produces a sentimental love poem reveals his love to be fake and shallow. Sentimentality is not just an aesthetic fault but a moral failing, since its object is an elevation of the self. It is fake emotion without the cost of genuine emotion. Even Oscar Wilde, the apologist for aestheticism (the view that art and morality are separate domains), used the very connection he tried to repudiate when he said (quite rightly) that only someone with a heart of stone could fail to laugh at the death of Little Nell, given the crass sentimentality in Dickens’ portrayal of the event in The Old Curiosity Shop.  

Even if you disagree with Wittgenstein’s judgment that Mendelssohn’s music lacks ‘a courageous melody’, the possibility of using such a term with moral resonance in response to an art form in non-representational mode shows that the creation of works of art and our response to them involves matters of critical judgment and integrity of feeling. As Leavis put it: ‘I don’t believe in any “literary values”, and you won’t find me talking about them; the judgments the literary critic is concerned with are judgments about life.’ Indeed, what he goes on to criticise in the novels of E M Forster is ‘a grave defect of perception, human insight and ethical valuation’.  

Henry James argued that ‘no good novel will ever proceed from a superficial mind’. The critic Lionel Trilling finds lacking in the novels of Edith Wharton her ‘limitation of heart … and this limitation makes itself manifest as a literary and moral deficiency of her work’.  

What is depressing and alarming is not just that a number of fanatical computerologists have an elevated view of the capabilities of computers, thinking that they are capable of some human activities, it is rather that such an attitude, and such an ambition, downgrades and mischaracterises their view of what it is to be human.  

This was clear to me when, during the lockdowns, our politicians and many in the educational establishment thought that ‘home learning’ on computer screens was an adequate replacement for social contact and being taught by human teachers, as though the acquisition of knowledge is reducible to information processing.  

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Frank Palmer
Frank Palmer
Dr Frank Palmer is a philosopher and author. He was taught by Roger Scruton who was his PhD supervisor and during the 1980s was part of a thinktank of academics Roger formed to fight damaging trends in education. Frank’s last book was Literature and Moral Understanding (Oxford University Press).

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